Depending on which source you want to credit, Russell Crowe gained anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds to play a dispassionate CIA analyst in Body of Lies, his fourth collaboration with director Ridley Scott (following Gladiator, A Good Year and American Gangster). Actors who put on that much weight are usually angling for an Oscar or otherwise striving to call attention to themselves, so the most potent surprise that this fairly twisty film has to offer may be the revelation that Crowe, though billed equally with Leonardo DiCaprio, is in fact playing a supporting role—and not a very, um, hefty one at that. Indeed, Body of Lies frequently plays like a geopolitical Sleepless in Seattle, with its two stars repeatedly jawing on the phone across thousands of miles but only rarely meeting in person. Call this one Jittery in Jordan.
Actually, Jordan is but one of at least a dozen countries visited by CIA operative Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) over the course of this extremely plot-heavy thriller, which nonetheless seems to take forever to settle into a discernible story. All we know for the first hour or so is that Ferris is hot on the trail of a terrorist mastermind (Alon Aboutboul) who’s responsible for a recent bombing campaign in Europe and has vowed to bring bloody death to America next. Eventually, after sparring with the head of Jordan’s Intelligence Department (Mark Strong), flirting with the hot Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) who’s giving him rabies shots and arguing at length with superior Ed Hoffman (Crowe) back in the States, he decides the best way to flush out the evildoer is to manufacture a phony competing terrorist cell. But this involves endangering the lives of innocent civilians—including, inadvertently, his new sweetheart.
Adapted by William Monahan (The Departed) from a novel by journalist David Ignatius, Body of Lies feels like a skeletal, distressingly shallow condensation of something admirably complex and murky. The film uses Crowe, with his thick, self-satisfied gut, in a very canny way, giving us a sense of how easy it is to toy with people’s lives from a great distance, seeing the consequences only on video screens or in satellite photos. But those sequences, while pointed, function primarily as counterpoint. For most of the movie, we’re in the muck with Ferris, running from one pressure-cooker situation to another. Some of this is reasonably exciting in a Jack Bauer sort of way—when Ferris surrenders to the terrorists (in exchange for the release of Hot Nurse), they come up with a simple but ingenious method of foiling the all-seeing CIA satellite—but too often the movie seems to be flailing about for context or subtext. Explosion, jargon, repeat.
What’s missing, I think, is a real sense of who Roger Ferris is and what he believes in. That’s not DiCaprio’s fault—this is one of his stronger “adult” performances, even if he still seems too boyish for the full beard he sports early on. But while Ferris sometimes gets briefly agonized about the collateral damage his profession inevitably wreaks, you don’t get the sense that he’s haunted by it the way, say, Jason Bourne clearly is. When Bourne kills a baddie, he lugs the guilt around for two damn sequels. Ferris’ fake-terror-cell scheme uses an innocent architect (Ali Suliman) as bait, but when the poor guy winds up a corpse, the movie promptly forgets all about him. You could argue that that’s intentional, and even challenging, except that Crowe’s Ed Hoffman is the callous pragmatist, and clearly intended to represent Ferris’ polar opposite. For all its humane aspirations, Body of Lies ultimately seems to identify more with the fat dude back in America, viewing the Middle East as just so many puny objects to manipulate at will.